Oregon’s wildfire season has become more threatening this week, with evacuations in some parts of the state, smoky skies elsewhere, schools canceled in response to planned power outages, and hundreds of thousands of acres now ablaze. Here are highlights from news across the region:
The National Weather Service is warning that strong, gusty winds and low humidity will bring extreme fire danger to western Oregon and Washington this weekend.
Utility companies are shutting off power in high-risk areas to keep fallen lines from sparking new fires.
Areas from the Columbia River Gorge south to Douglas County in western Oregon are most at risk from the forecasted east winds.
While rapid fire spread will be a significant threat across much of southwest Washington & northwest Oregon over the next 24-36 hours, the good news is that winds are expected to peak well below the Labor Day 2020 windstorm. (1/2) #pdxtst #orwx #wawx pic.twitter.com/Y4qAjT5ucP— NWS Portland (@NWSPortland) September 9, 2022
Fire crews, including several from Washington state, have been sent to those areas in an effort to quickly respond to fires that spark.
Portland General Electric plans to shut off power in 10 areas because of the risk of fire, affecting about 30,000 customers.
Pacific Power notified about 12,000 customers that it would start shutting power off early this morning.
Gov. Kate Brown says Oregonians should continue to be prepared, have a plan in place and to do anything they can to prevent human-caused fires.
Winds push Lane County wildfire toward communities
The entire town of Oakridge in Lane County is under a Level 3 “Go Now” evacuation because of the Cedar Creek Fire.
Strong winds Friday pushed the fire toward the residential communities of Oakridge, Wesfir and High Prairie. More than 3,200 people live in the area. Officials asked them to evacuate immediately, and to head west, away from the fire.
The high winds and low humidity continued to feed the fire into Saturday, according to Bud Sexton, a spokesman for the Cedar Creek Fire.
“In fact, it’s extreme fire behavior today,” Sexton said. “It has definitely grown.”
Sexton said the heat from the fire is drying out grasses and other fire fuel before flames reach the area, making conditions even worse. Sexton said weather conditions are expected to become more moderate Sunday, but officials don’t yet know when people can begin returning home.
There’s a temporary evacuation point stationed at Lane Community College and the Lane Events Center in Eugene. More updated information can be found on Lane County’s website.
Brown invoked an emergency conflagration act in response to the fire to make more firefighting resources available to local agencies.
The fire was started by lightning in early August, but strong winds were causing it to spread rapidly toward residential areas.
South Salem fire triggers “go now” evacuations
Residents south of Salem had to evacuate their homes Friday night because of a grass fire.
Officials say the Level 3 “go now” evacuations will likely last through the weekend.
They’ve stationed a temporary evacuation point at the Judson Middle School.
More information can be found on the Marion County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page.
Fighting the Double Creek Fire and others in Eastern Oregon
Firefighters have managed to protect most structures from a series of wildfires throughout Wallowa County, but the future of the fires remains uncertain.
At a community meeting in Joseph Thursday, state and federal officials provided updates on the status of the fires and fielded questions from residents.
The officials told the audience that only a small handful of structures had been destroyed by the fire and no primary homes had burned down yet. Firefighters felt like they were in good position to protect Imnaha from the Double Creek Fire and had created breaks to protect the city of Lostine should the Sturgill Fire, one of three fires burning in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, suddenly surge north.
But as residents asked about whether certain communities and properties were at risk, the speakers cautioned that the future of the fires was dependent on the weather.
Incident commander Jason Loomis said the Double Creek Fire was complicated by a difficult topography and a short staff.
“This is a tough piece of ground,” he said. “Everything’s north-south aligned. To try to turn the corner and go east-west across all those drainages, draws and ridges is going to be a challenge. That’s not only my opinion, that’s a fact. It’s going to be very difficult to try to turn the corner there.”
Wallowa County resident Charles McDaniel was critical of the firefighters decision to contain the Sturgill Fire while letting it burn naturally, saying it could have been put out much earlier in the process. The officials defended the practice of letting some fires in the wilderness burn to help the ecosystem become more adaptable.
In a press release Friday morning, fire officials announced the Double Creek Fire grew roughly 37,000 acres in a day. “The lightning caused Double Creek Fire is a full suppression fire, and the protection of lives and property remain the primary objectives of this incident. Firefighters continued firing operations to the north from the Bed and Breakfast along Lower Imnaha Road, keeping ahead of the fire’s progress,” officials said in the release.
Public safety power outages
Public safety power shutoffs began early Friday morning for Pacific Power and Portland General Electric customers in high fire risk zones.
Rural areas prone to high winds saw the first power shutoffs. PGE began its scheduled outages with customers in the Mt. Hood Corridor and the foothills, followed by those in the Columbia Gorge. The utility planned shutoffs for eight more areas, including in Portland’s West Hills, to begin by early afternoon.
The Portland Bureau of Transportation warned late Thursday night that drivers should use extreme caution as traffic signals, flashing beacons and street lights in the West Hills would be losing power.
Pacific Power planned to begin its shutoff schedule with areas of Douglas County early Friday morning, followed by parts of Linn, Marion, Lincoln, Tillamook and Polk counties.
Up to 42,000 total customers of both utilities could lose power starting Friday to reduce the threat of wildfires.
Utility officials are recommending people in shut-off areas prepare emergency kits with water, food and cash.
Schools close out of caution
Several Oregon schools closed Friday due to planned power outages, related to the rising risks of wildfires, and at least one district closed early because a wildfire was leading to likely evacuations in the area.
The Corbett, Santiam Canyon, Sweet Home, Gaston, Silver Falls and Oregon Trail school districts are all in areas where Pacific Power and Portland General Electric planned public safety power shutoffs. In Portland, Skyline and East Sylvan schools closed.
In a statement to the Santiam Canyon school community Thursday, Superintendent Todd Miller said that there was little alternative to closing schools because the lack of electricity would make it unsafe to serve students.
The Oakridge School District started dismissing students at 10:30 a.m. Friday due to level 2 evacuation notices urging people to prepare to leave the area in case of worsening conditions. Oakridge is in a part of Lane County being threatened by the Cedar Creek Fire.